Imagine if we decided that, at $17 million per gold medal, preparing elite athletes for the Olympics was too expensive and that instead we'd pay our fastest and fittest to train only for 40 days each year. Come Rio 2016, no one would expect many Australian Olympic champions.

Yet that's precisely the logic now being applied to the reshaping of military forces around the world, with burdens being shifted from regular to reserve forces. It has also been suggested for Australia. But the next Defence White Paper, instead of recommending we do more with our reserves, should call for doing less.

Before I talk about why, a caveat: I'm focused on the Army Reserve because Navy and Air Force reserves are mostly populated by ex-regular personnel integrated into regular force units.

For the latter half of last century, the Army Reserve force structure was based on over 40 regiments and battalions (500-1000 personnel each) grouped into six brigades (usually 3000 personnel) based in all states but Tasmania. This geographically dispersed force was expected to form the nucleus around which to mobilise a much larger land force, given enough strategic warning time, should a direct threat to Australia present itself. 

The 2000 Defence White Paper changed the role of the Army Reserve from a 'mobilisation base' to a force capable of 'supporting and sustaining the types of contemporary military operations in which the ADF may be increasingly engaged'. The 2009 Defence White Paper similarly noted that the main aim of the Army Reserve is to help Army sustain prolonged operational deployments and reduce operational concurrency problems. So what of the Reserve in the 2013 Defence White Paper?

I mentioned previously Richard Brabin-Smith's suggestion that higher-end (and expensive) war fighting capabilities should be warehoused with the Reserves. My colleague Hugh White also argued back in 2009 that tanks and medium artillery should be entrusted to the Reserves. This month the UK Government echoed this approach by announcing 20% reductions to the regular Army and a doubling of the Army Reserve. This RUSI report analyses the arguments that led the UK to that decision. 

The case for committing complex and professional war fighting skills to the Reserve may be tempting for Australian defence planners, but it makes little sense. War fighting is a profession and modern weaponry and tactics are highly technical and complex. Like Olympic athletes, when professional soldiers train less they achieve less. Any decision to warehouse war fighting capabilities in the Reserve is really a decision to let the capability atrophy and fail.

I'm curious as to what military capability Australia thinks its 16,000-strong Army Reserve possesses. The force structure looks largely the same now as it did during the Vietnam conflict and has survived drones, cyber warfare and IEDs without being significantly modernised. That force structure is mostly hollow. Army reserve units which should consist of 500-1000 personnel often only attract a hundred or so to regular training, and those units are often poorly equipped.

A 2008 audit by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) concluded that 27% of Army Reservists had not completed their most basic training, 55% failed to meet even basic individual readiness requirements (this includes being able to run 2.4km and handle a rifle safely), and 20% failed to show up at all. Reportedly, when Defence emailed a civilian skills database survey to all Army Reserve members last year, 10% of the emails bounced back.

Government has had significant trouble working out what the Army Reserve actually costs (the ANAO report goes into some detail as to why). The Strategic Reform Program is trying to shave $380 million from the cost of the Reserves over 10 years, but at least in Army's case, Government has never established the funding baseline for the Reserves, beyond training salaries.

Any time Defence tries to substantially reform the Army Reserve, it meets strong political opposition. Because they are freer to engage in public debate than regular soldiers, Reservists appear to be disproportionately able to voice their opposition to reform. When changes were made to Reserve resource allocation in 2009, Reservists wrote letters to newspapers and lobbied politicians. Even sensible measures like reducing funding to Army Reserve musical bands attract intervention in the federal parliament by senior politicians. That might explain why there hasn't been serious reform of the Army Reserve force structure for over four decades.

The Army Reserve is bloated, bureaucratic, and top heavy. It has full complements of major generals and warrant officers yet is undermanned in privates and junior officers. Its six brigades have largely failed to fully achieve the higher readiness tasks set for them in the 2000 and 2009 Defence White Papers, and Reserve-only units depots create a significant burden on Defence administration and the Defence estate. Simplifying and reducing the Army Reserve force structure could allow more effective delivery of military capability, and some budget savings too.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.